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On Friday 29 February this year, just after celebrating the Qurbana, the Eucharist of the Chaldean Rite of the Catholic Church, in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Mosul (the ancient city of Nineveh), Iraq, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped. His driver, Ferris, and two bodyguards, Samir and Ramy, each a married man with three children, were shot dead. On 13 March, after a phone call, the body of the archbishop was found in a shallow grave. It wasn’t clear if he had been directly murdered or if his death was due to the lack of medicine that he needed because of his poor health. He seemed to have been dead for about a week. Pope Benedict expressed his distress, describing what happened as ‘an act of inhuman violence that offends the dignity of the human being and seriously harms the . . . coexistence among the beloved Iraqi people’.
On Palm Sunday, two days after the funeral, Pope Benedict spoke these words after the Angelus: ‘At the end of this solemn celebration in which we have meditated on Christ’s Passion, I wish to recall the late Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, who tragically passed away a few days ago. His beautiful witness of fidelity to Christ, to the Church and to his people, whom he did not want to abandon, notwithstanding numerous threats, urges me to raise a strong and heart-rending cry: stop the murders, stop the violence, stop the hate in Iraq! And at the same time I raise an appeal to the Iraqi People, who for five years now are marked with the sign of war that has provoked the disruption of its civil and social life: beloved people of Iraq, lift up your heads and be yourselves, in the first place, builders of your national life! May there be reconciliation, forgiveness, justice and respect for civil coexistence among tribes, ethnic and religious groups, jointly responsible for the way to peace in the Name of God!’
Father Youssef Adel, a priest of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, was murdered in Baghdad on 5 April. Among those at his funeral the following day were the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt, and Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly of the Chaldean Catholic Rite as well as members of other Christian churches.
On Pentecost Sunday last year, 3 June, outside the same Church of the Holy Spirit where Archbishop Rahho was kidnapped, his then secretary and parish priest, Fr Ragheed Aziz Ganni, was shot dead along with three deacons, Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed, just after celebrating Mass. One of the deacons was a cousin of Father Ragheed. The priest, 35, qualified as an engineer before entering the seminary. He studied in Rome from 1996 till 2003 and resided there in the Pontifical Irish College. During summers he spent time in Ireland as a staff member at a penitential pilgrim site, Lough Derg, ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory’. He was ordained on 13 October 2001.
Father Ragheed was no stranger to danger, as his Testimony at Bari on the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress there shows, and chose to go back to his own suffering people.
One Irish student in Rome described Father Ragheed this way: ‘He was a raconteur par excellence and a font of knowledge - we discussed everything and anything from the metaphysical to the trivial. A young and gauche student at the time, I learnt about Iraq and about theology; about the workings of the college in the summer and the best places to eat pizza. I was amazed at his command of English and Italian and his perennial good spirits and big smile - he was and will always be an inspiration’.
There is something very consoling with the essence of our faith in Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who promised us the night before he died that his joy would be ours, and something very endearing in a priest-martyr remembered for his courage, for his prayerfulness, for his ‘perennial good spirits and big smile’ for his summer stints in a place of penance – and for knowing the best places to eat pizza in Rome.
Editor’s note: Some reports described the three men murdered with Father Ragheed as ‘subdeacons’. Some also stated that Archbishop Rahho had led the people in the Way of the Cross before his kidnapping.
Mosul Christians are not theologians; some are even illiterate. And yet inside of us for many generations one truth has become embedded: without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live. This is true today when evil has reached the point of destroying churches and killing Christians, something unheard of in Iraq till now.
In June 2004, a group of young women were cleaning the church to get it ready for Sunday service. My sister Raghad, who was 19, was among them. As she was carrying a pail of water to wash the floor, two men drove up and threw a grenade that blew up just a few meters away from her.
She was wounded but miraculously survived. And on that Sunday we still celebrated the Eucharist. My shaken parents were also there. For me and my community, my sister’s wounds were a source of strength so that we, too, may bear our cross.
Last August in St Paul Church, a car bomb exploded after the 6 pm Mass. The blast killed two Christians and wounded many others. But that, too, was another miracle—the car was full of bombs but only one exploded. Had they all gone off together the dead would have been in the hundreds, since 400 faithful had come on that day.
People could not believe what had happened. The terrorists might think they can kill our bodies or our spirit by frightening us, but, on Sundays, churches are always full. They may try to take our life, but the Eucharist gives it back.
On 7 December, the eve of the Immaculate Conception, a group of terrorists tried to destroy the Chaldean Bishop’s Residence, which is near Our Lady of the Tigris Shrine, a place venerated by both Christians and Muslims. They placed explosives everywhere and a few minutes later blew the place up. This and fundamentalist violence against young Christians have forced many families to flee. Yet the churches have remained open and people continue to go to Mass, even among the ruins.
It is among such difficulties that we understand the real value of Sunday, the day when we meet the Risen Christ, the day of our unity and love, of our [mutual] support and help.
There are days when I feel frail and full of fear. But when, holding the Eucharist, I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God, Behold who takes away the sin of the world’, I feel His strength in me. When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really He who is holding me and all of us, challenging the terrorists and keeping us united in His boundless love.
In normal times, everything is taken for granted and we forget the greatest gift that is made to us. Ironically, it is thanks to terrorist violence that we have truly learnt that it is the Eucharist, the Christ who died and is risen, that gives us life. And this allows us to resist and hope.
In his homily next day Pope Benedict, who at this time had probably never heard of Father Ragheed, prophetically spoke these words:
The chosen theme – ‘Without Sunday we cannot live’ – takes us back to the year 304, when the Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians, on pain of death, from possessing the Scriptures, from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and from building places in which to hold their assemblies.
In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: ‘Sine dominico non possumus’: that is, ‘We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist’. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.
The experience of the martyrs of Abitene is also one on which we 21st-century Christians should reflect. It is not easy for us either to live as Christians, even if we are spared such prohibitions from the emperor.
Sahar al-Haideri in Mosul reported on 7 August 2007 in www.chaldeanfederation.org/news/monsul.html : There are no accurate demographic statistics for Iraq, but most estimates indicate there were between 800,000 and one million Iraqi Christians in Iraq in 2003. A 2005 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, on non-Muslim religious minorities in Iraq said that most of the Christians were from Nineveh province, although substantial numbers lived and worked in Baghdad.
UNHCR reported last year that about 24 per cent of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, which borders Nineveh province, were Christians. In addition, about 1,720 Christian families have fled Mosul for the relative safety of the Nineveh Plains outside the city, according to a Christian human rights advocate in the province who requested anonymity out of concern for his security. Thousands of Christians from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq have also fled to the plains.
Christians, many of whom were successful entrepreneurs and professionals, were some of Iraq’s first refugees.